ExxonMobil Cans Algae (Greenwash Error)

By Robert Bradley Jr.

From the masterresource

“After Exxon Mobil Corp. For over a decade, it has touted its efforts to create eco-friendly fuels from algae, it is now quietly moving away from its most publicized climate solution.” (below)

Biofuel is out, leaving ExxonMobil with carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the leave-us-let’s-do-our-part greenwashing strategy (see tomorrow’s post). The end of algae as a substitute for crude oil comes after $350 million and 14 years of commitment. This spending was joined by a minimum $60 million “green” publicity campaign surrounding the project, mostly spent between 2017 and 2019.

It was predictable. Shell, BP and Chevron had previously thrown in the towel on biofuels. And it’s reminiscent of Exxon’s failed ventures in the 1970s: office equipment. property. synthetic fuels. shale oil. electric motors. solar panels. Uranium. Copper.


Here’s the latest as reported by Ben Eligin and Kevin Crowley. “Exxon pulls back from major climate effort to make biofuels from algae(Reuters: February 10, 2023) is subtitled “Algal-derived renewable fuels were the company’s most publicized climate solution.” The three shutdowns are reported in the article:

Exxon has cut its support for Viridos Inc., a La Jolla, Calif.-based biotech that has served as the oil giant’s key technical partner since it began its algae offensive in 2009. December 60% of its workforce. The biotech company said it is continuing to advance algae research.

Exxon, meanwhile, also stopped funding a multimillion-dollar algae project at the Colorado School of Mines late last year after supporting the work for eight years. Another Exxon-backed project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is due to end in a few weeks.

But the company’s new division, Low Carbon Solutions (think 1970s Exxon Enterprises), carries on with government subsidies in tow:

Exxon confirmed that it is withdrawing funding from algae in favor of other technologies that its Low Carbon Solutions division is now working on. “As of this writing, we have other programs that are ready to go,” said Vijay Swarup, Exxon’s senior director of technology, who led the algae research. “We need to hit the delivery curve for carbon capture, for hydrogen and for biofuels. Algae need a little more work.”

“This is a remarkable change for Exxon,” Eligin and Crowley continue:

The appeal of biofuels made from algae is that they would potentially produce less than half the emissions of petroleum. Exxon’s production and use of oil and gas generates approximately 630 million tons of heat-retaining gases each year, nearly equal to Canada’s carbon footprint. The Green Goop has been featured prominently in television commercials and investor presentations for years as a climate-friendly option.

Exxon is pulling out of seaweed despite a stunning financial performance last year in which it posted a record $59 billion in profits. And it comes just as algae research has shown significant advances: Viridos and Exxon have made significant improvements in recent years, including a sevenfold increase in the productivity of algae grown in open-air ponds, according to Oliver Fetzer, Viridos chief executive officer.

Some questionable editing here. Strong profits are no reason to engage in loss-making economics, especially with a technology that has never been profitable and has a dismal open-ended economy. And “get better”… isn’t that the constant cry for more subsidies, more time?

Back to Eligin and Crowley:

Algae has long played an intriguing role at Exxon. The company has been criticized more than any other for being the most recalcitrant to climate change, and has been the subject of lawsuits, protests and years of political scrutiny for its long-term commitment to fossil fuels even as global warming gathers momentum. When the criticism hit, Exxon often viewed its algae efforts as important proof that it was serious about climate change and the discovery of clean forms of energy. “They’ve tried to give the impression that they’re part of the solution, when they certainly aren’t,” said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who has studied the promotional activities of the fossil fuel industry.

ExxonMobil Executives Tried To Placate Their Enemies And Is This What They Get? All of this was spelled out by a certain Steve Milloy, who has actively urged company executives not to try to placate their enemies, but to stand proud of what they believe in: oil and gas for the masses. [1]

End of Eligin and Crowley:

In an interview, Exxon officials dismissed the suggestion that algae was some kind of greenwashing attempt. “The progress we’ve made so far is remarkable,” Swarup said, adding that algae still have tremendous future potential. “Where we are today in algae is more advanced than anyone has ever been in algae in terms of productivity and the ability to replicate results outdoors.”

Remarkable? Do the previous research and findings have a market value? Or was it just a wealth transfer to some academic researchers and expensive greenwashing? Lee Raymond would never have done that when ExxonMobil was one of the best run companies in the world.


The problem of biofuels is one of energy density, which gives rise to many other problems. [2] Crude oil remains king.

It is to be hoped that the mistakes of the present (algae yesterday, CO2 capture tomorrow) can be learned from the lessons learned. Regarding the 1970s, Joseph Pratt and William Hale noted:

Believing that the oil industry could die a slow death, Exxon and most major oil companies have exited the oil business in search of long-term growth opportunities. Exxon invested significant capital, managerial effort, and research dollars in diversifying into industries entirely outside of energy, as well as into non-oil and gas energy industries.

The company mistakenly went out of business and “refocused on its core business: oil, natural gas and chemicals [and] … emerged with a stronger focus on its core businesses and a renewed sense that oil and gas will remain its priority going forward.” [3]

Today there is more hope than yesterday. But carbon capture and storage remains a major distraction at ExxonMobil. Also bad PR from right and left.


[1] Milloy testified at the 2021 meeting:

At the 2008 annual meeting, I told then-CEO Rex Tillerson that appeasement of climate activists would lead to disaster. I suggested a way out: ban these stupid shareholder proposals. I conveyed the same message to current CEO Darren Woods in 2017. He wasn’t listening either… This year, I proposed that Exxon push back on climate idiocy by disclosing the real costs and benefits of reducing emissions. The cost of reducing emissions is very high and the benefit is zero. But the ever-dull Mr. Woods refuses to acknowledge these realities.

[2] “The process requires so much energy that algal biofuel production could be using more energy than it produces, some researchers have concluded.” — Christopher Matthews, “Exxon sees green gold in algae-based fuels. Skeptics see greenwashing” (Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2021)

[3] Pratt and Hale, Exxon: Transforming Energy, 1973-2005 (Austin: Briscoe Center for American History, 2013), p. 167

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